Helmand, Afghanistan is a Sideshow – Or Not

BY Herschel Smith
6 years, 9 months ago

An interesting report from the WSJ (h/t Spencer Ackerman):

“How many people do you bring in before the Afghans say, ‘You’re acting like the Russians’?” said one senior military official, referring to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. “That’s the big debate going on in the headquarters right now.”

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said publicly during his campaign for the approaching Aug. 20 elections that he wants to negotiate new agreements giving the Afghan government more control over the conduct of the foreign troops currently in the country.

Gen. McChrystal, however, says too many troops aren’t a concern. “I think it’s what you do, not how many you are. It’s how the force conducts itself.”

Regardless of how he resolves the internal debate on troop numbers, Gen. McChrystal’s coming report won’t include any specific requests for more U.S. troops. Those numbers would instead be detailed in a follow-on document that is set to be delivered to Washington a few weeks after the assessment.

The timing of Gen. McChrystal’s primary assessment remains in flux. It was initially due in mid-August, but the commander was summoned to a secret meeting in Belgium last week with Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and told to take more time. Military officials say the assessment will now be released sometime after the Aug. 20 vote.

The shift came amid signs of growing U.S. unease about the direction of the war effort. Initial assessments delivered to Gen. McChrystal last month warned that the Taliban were strengthening their control over Kandahar, the largest city in southern Afghanistan.

American forces have been waging a major offensive in the neighboring southern province of Helmand, the center of Afghanistan’s drug trade. Some U.S. military officials believe the Taliban have taken advantage of the American preoccupation with Helmand to infiltrate Kandahar and set up shadow local governments and courts throughout the city.

“Helmand is a sideshow,” said the senior military official briefed on the analysis. “Kandahar is the capital of the south [and] that’s why they want it.”

First of all let’s deal with this issue of acting like Russians with too many troops.  If this debate is actually “going on in headquarters right now,” wherever headquarters is (the report doesn’t say – CENTCOM, the Pentagon, Kabul, Kandahar Air Field, etc.), whomever is in charge should tell the boys to get back to work and quit wasting time.  We won’t be acting like the Russians unless we cloister in the cities, refuse to engage the countryside, turn over the road to the Taliban, fail to beat the Taliban in fire fights, and fail to provide the population security.  More troops will get us further away from being like the Russians, not more like them.  Such childish debates are a sign of a military establishment which refuses to tell the administration the truth.

Second, Spencer Ackerman responds by saying:

“Helmand is a sideshow,” said the senior military official briefed on the analysis. “Kandahar is the capital of the south [and] that’s why they want it.”

That’s your Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment right there. We sent thousands of Marines to a sideshow? Thousands of Marines, a meager complement of civilians, and barely any Afghan capacity? For a sideshow? A place McChrystal recently called a “critical area“? The general tells Dreazen and Spiegel that Helmand was, in fact, critical to focus on first, in order to disrupt the opium trade in the province that helps bankroll the Taliban. But then how could any halfway-responsible military official come away thinking that Helmand is a sideshow?

Perhaps even more alarming is this analysis:

Some U.S. military officials believe the Taliban have taken advantage of the American preoccupation with Helmand to infiltrate Kandahar and set up shadow local governments and courts throughout the city.

To begin with, this kind of comment (“Helmand is a sideshow) is profoundly insulting and troubling to parents, spouses and loved ones of Marines who are fighting in the Helmand Province.  So it’s simply inappropriate to let such loose words slip from the tongue.  “Anonymous” sources are cowards who like to see their words in print, but the words of these cowards sometimes hurt.  As for the issue of allowing the Taliban to come in and set up a shadow government, they have already had that in Kandahar for over a year.

More troops are needed, and taking them away from Helmand is not the answer.  To be sure, allowing the Taliban to come into an urban area and go uncontested is poor strategy, but this strategy calls for a stronger force.  Given the problem of Kandahar v. Helmand, the stupid argument over force size and being like the Russians sounds rather adolescent, doesn’t it?

Continuing, is Helmand really a side show?

The Helmand Province is the home of the indigenous insurgency, the Afghanistan Taliban, and its capital is Lashkar Gah.  Without hitting the Taliban’s recruiting grounds, fund raising and revenue development, training grounds, and logistical supply lines, the campaign cannot be won.  Focusing on the population centers is a loser strategy, doomed to sure failure.  Controlling the cities as some sort of prison while the roads are all controlled by Taliban is just what the Russians did, only to withdraw in ignominy.  The Marines are in Helmand because just like Anbar, Iraq at the time, it is the worst place on earth.

Yochi J. Dreazen and Peter Spiegel wrote an interesting article, but it is badly flawed because they got poor contacts and resources.  Even if Kandahar is of interest, taking and securing it will be but a temporary notch in our belts unless the insurgency is defeated in his own back yard.  Helmand is his back yard.

Prior: Operation Khanjar category

  • justiceman

    As you well know anonymous sources are not cowards, simply officers like yourself or me who do not want their careers trashed for saying the wrong thing.

    Here’s a senior officer who was willing to go on the record; General Richards, soon to be Chief of UK General Staff: ‘..and I thought ‘where’s Helmand? Thats not very important. Kandahar is what matters’ (from One Million Bullets by James Fergusson). General Richards was RC South Commander in 2006-2007. He was wondering why UK Forces were to be given Helmand and not Kandahar.

    He was right then and he would be right now. No amount of laying about oneself with accusations of cowardice will change that. Kandahar is the historical capital of the Pashtun lands ; it is there the Talaban began and Kandahar is the strategic lynchpin of the South. ALways has been. ALways will. We have to see things as the enemy see them and they see Kandahar as the key. For them and us, Helmand is indeed a sideshow.

    You, sir are in Helmand, not because it is the Anbar of Afghanistan, but, to put it bluntly because in 2006 some UK diplomats decided the UK army should take over security for Helmand and not Kandahar. The UK Government were unable or unwilling to man the mission properly, and the UK Army, as I am sure you know, did not have the men, kit or strategy to do the job. It is a matter of shame and regret to us that the US had to fill the gap (again).

    I am a former UK officer. I’ve served in all our theatres of the last decade, including Helmand in 2007. We have all lost people. That does not mean the strategy we are pursuing, such as it is, is the right one. It most certainly is not, but I guess that raises bigger questions. My Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment came when a UK government minister asked us what the endstate is. Any ideas?

  • http://www.captainsjournal.com/ Herschel Smith

    I am not an officer. I am a Marine father.

    You have a British-centric view of things, and I suppose that that’s understandable. But you must drop that in order to understand both the post and my response to your comment.

    First of all, I don’t like anonymous sources, and I don’t retract anything I have said above. If someone wants to go on the record, he should go on the record. Enough said about that.

    Second, you are begging the question (rather than providing evidence) concerning the importance of Kandahar and Helmand. There is enough content in both this post and the previous several hundred posts over this web site for you to understand the point that the debate (in my view) is settled. Securing the population centers was a Russian strategy and will lose the campaign for us. We must go after the Taliban where they are, where they recruit, where they raise their largesse, and where they train. That’s not Kandahar. Kandahar is a symptom of the problem, not the problem itself. We must control the countryside, the roads, and the logistical supply lines. If we do this, Kandahar will be much easier to tackle.

    Third, I understand the British experience in Helmand (and also in Basra), and that upper echelons of command applied COIN principles more applicable to Northern Ireland than Iraq or Afghanistan (although this comment is more applicable to Basra than Helmand where the Brits are very busy). I also understand that the British – for whatever reason – are undermanned. There simply aren’t enough troops to hold Helmand. This has been evident when the USMC took Gamrsir in 2008 (24th MEU), turned it over to the Brits, only to have to take it again in 2009 during Operation Khanjar just recently because the Brits couldn’t hold it.

    There are some very brave British troops, but the effort it undermanned. The same thing has happened in Now Zad, where the USMC took over from the Brits. Musa Qala is yet another horrible, awful example (there is a Musa Qala category here on this web site).

    But just because the Brits have been unable to hold the terrain doesn’t mean that the effort is a sideshow when the USMC comes in and takes it. I believe that you’re allowing your biases to dictate policy / strategy, and your view of how to go forward in the campaign. The answer to the failing British effort in Afghanistan isn’t to assert after the fact that “Oh well, that part of the campaign wasn’t really that important anyway. It was really just a side show”

    The arguments above (both yours and mine) should be enough to convince command that yet another USMC Regimental Combat Team should be sent to the Helmand / Kandahar area of operations. The post above doesn’t advocate letting the insurgents loose in Kandahar. It advocates going after them where they are – EVERYWHERE they are.

    Finally, I would use the analogy of a football game (US Football, not UK football). If the running back breaks loose and heads for the goal line, we can claim all we wish that this is a sideshow. But when he scores, the scoreboard reflect reality regardless of our claims. Helmand is most certainly not a sideshow, absurd claims to the contrary.

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This article is filed under the category(s) Afghanistan,Marine Corps,Operation Khanjar and was published August 10th, 2009 by Herschel Smith.

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